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‘Carnival Row’: Amazon’s Latest Is a Mystical Misfire

Amazon’s new fantasy series is a disappointing amalgamation of familiar elements and underwhelming storytelling.

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Carnival Row, Amazon’s new foray into the supernatural, is a pastiche of elements from so many other series: at one moment, it tries to channel the Victorian gloom of Penny Dreadful, while in another, it fancies itself as an “adult” Once Upon a Time – aka, it has a penchant for fairy tits and an unusually graphic amount of bloodletting. Throw in a fully-realized world (full of real-world sociopolitical parallels) built from a wholly original concept (no, this is not an adaptation), and it might seem Carnival Row is poised to be the next great fantasy series; and yet, it is one of the most lifeless series I’ve seen in 2019, an abundantly familiar show drowned by leaden starring performances and a silly, superficial plot that more than overextends its stay during the first season’s eight-episode run.

Carnival Row is instantly forgettable, a mush of familiar concepts and ideas that never coalesce into anything truly resonant, or even mildly entertaining.

Most reviews you’ll read this week about Carnival Row will most likely lean into the very thin parallels between it and Game of Thrones: they both have elaborate mythologies, fantastical settings, and a wide array of supporting characters. But that is where the similarities end: much of Carnival Row‘s world building, as impressive as it may be in concept, just feels like world building for the sake of doing it: the many, many info dumps about a world shared by humans, faes, minotaurs, humans with ram horns, etc, etc. It’s like a highly glorified, well-budgeted fantasy cosplay convention (one that once had Guillermo del Toro attached, no less), evocative of so much familiar fiction, yet unable to tether itself to anything that feels truly original, or even worth seeing to the conclusion.

Carnival Row

This issue of weightlessness carries through every element of the series, including the lead performances from Orlando Bloom and Cara Delevingne, who play former lovers and soldiers-turned detective and immigrant (respectively) when brought to the “new” world of 7th century The Burgue (which looks a lot like 19th century London, including rumors of a man named Jack running around “ripping” people’s faces off).

Bloom, as one might expect, offers no nuance to the ridiculously-named role of Rycroft Philostrate, a hard-boiled detective with a pocket full of personal regrets. It’s a two-pronged issue: the writing never asks Bloom to step outside his comfort zone of “vaguely good-looking and slightly concerned,” and Bloom never tries to push the envelope, fading indistinctly into the web of forgettable minor characters – which run the gamut from bitchy rich girl trying not to go poor, to fae prostitutes, to corrupt politicians and their wives, and the games they play for power (the lead political characters are played by Chernobyl‘s Jared Harris and Game of Thrones‘ Indira Varma, which at least inject some personality into the few scenes they’re offered each episode).

Bloom’s weak performance ultimately brings down the core elements of the series: both the murder mystery and the romance suffer from his character’s unconvincing presence in the narrative. Delevingne’s at least better casted, the scrappy action heroine chops she showed in the (otherwise disappointing) Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets proving a better foundation to build her character, the (equally) ludicrously named Vignette Stonemoss.

Carnival Row

As Stonemoss, Delevingne is equal parts scrappy and raw, elements that come to life in the few moments when Carnival Row untethers Vignette from the collection of genre tropes it constructs its stories around. However, those moments are few and far in between, and most of Vignette’s big moments are built around her and Philo’s interactions, a chemistry-free romance that only furthers the underwhelming sense of facsimile running through the heart of the series.

That being said, Carnival Row isn’t completely and utterly void of redeeming qualities: it is a rather earnest attempt to build an intriguing, relevant world of fantasy, albeit one built on an convoluted foundation of overwrought cliches (and one of the more underwhelming central romances in recent memory). However, Carnival Row has no sense of pacing and tone, content to mash up half-baked ideas (for example, all the immigrant faes have Irish accents) and familiar tropes, all in favor of an underwhelming murder mystery and even more disappointing romance.

Carnival Row

Knowing Marc Guggenheim was going to be the show runner for Carnival Row initially had me excited, even after watching the boring-as-nails pilot: with so many different, strange elements to pull from, it seemed a natural playground for the EP behind Legends of Tomorrow to bring that show’s trademark unhinged chaos to: and yet, Carnival Row feels a lot closer to his Green Lantern script than The CW’s signature, groundbreaking superhero series.

Carnival Row, for all its trappings, characters, and fantasy elements, is a surprisingly simple, straightforward fare: and in the end, that’s the most disappointing part of the eight-episode first season (it’s already been renewed for a second season, of course). There’s just no risks being taken, no commitment to being truly unique or meaningful – be it the writing, the performances, or the show’s lackluster sociopolitical commentary, everything on Carnival Row is just dry. And for a show that purports the depth of its own imagination so frequently with filler backstory, it makes for a rather neutered, lifeless watch.

The most fervent fans of this particular brand of fantasy might be entertained enough to make it through all eight hours – but for most, Carnival Row is instantly forgettable, a mush of concepts and ideas that never coalesce into anything truly resonant, or even mildly entertaining.

A TV critic since the pre-Peak TV days of 2011, Randy is a critic and editor formerly of Sound on Sight, Processed Media, TVOvermind, Pop Optiq, and many, many others.

15 Comments

15 Comments

  1. Bryce Carlson

    September 12, 2019 at 8:02 pm

    I read your review and while I feel you are entitled to your opinion I feel that you either did not pay attention to what you were watching or that you are not competent to handle layers of nuance that are built into the show. However, good you.

    • linda Doucett

      September 26, 2019 at 12:29 am

      I concur with the review…. boring and dull
      very disappointing

    • Kate

      November 16, 2019 at 11:55 am

      I thought it would be good as I enjoy quirky shows. This bored me to death! Watched 3 episodes… ZZZZZ. I may finish episode 4 but not looking forward to it! Dreary, dark and depressing.
      Still not sure what the plot is…..

  2. Dominique Wheeler

    September 16, 2019 at 2:23 am

    I’m sorry but were we watching the same series? You are more than entitled to you opinion but everybody who I know who’s seen it ,myself included absolutely LOVED it! It was suspenseful and beautiful! The soundtrack was amazing too! Well that’s my opinion anyway..

    • Kate

      November 16, 2019 at 12:00 pm

      I have read people either love it or hate it. As a GOT fan I was hooked from the 1st espisode….. same with TWD. May watch another episode of Carnival Row in fairness maybe I’m missing something? So far “meh”.

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“Crisis on Infinite Earths” Is an Endearingly Clumsy Love Letter to DC’s Television Legacy

DCTV’s sprawling, ambitious crossover is creatively uneven, but its endearing nostalgia easily outweighs its flaws.

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Crisis on Infinite Earths

The ambition of The CW’s “Crisis on Infinite Earths” crossover can’t be understated, an attempt to integrate the network’s sprawling set of universes into a single, coherent reality – and perhaps more importantly, to say farewell to the series, and star, at its heart. A world-hopping, universe-jumping adventure acting as an homage to 50-plus years of DC television (and, in one notable case, film), the first three parts of “Crisis on Infinite Earths” are unfiltered joy, embracing its limited budget and impossibly large cast of characters (and famous cameos) in a wildly entertaining – if creatively uneven – journey through DC’s strange history on the small screen.

The sheer audacity of “Crisis on Infinite Earths” is, frankly, incredible to watch: while it doesn’t always work, it makes the crossover event utterly fascinating to dissect.

The CW’s sixth official crossover technically began during its fifth; last season’s “Elseworlds” established the broad strokes to follow, setting Oliver Queen on his path to destiny – and in the process, muting the impact of every isolated story line of the extended DC lineup. The reveal of The Monitor in “Elseworlds (Part 3)” (which was Supergirl‘s ninth episode of its fourth season, if anyone is keeping score) was intriguing, but ultimately distracting: knowing the fate of the multiverse was casually hanging in the balance, limited the ability of stories like Lex Luthor and Barry’s convoluted time-traveling to have any sort of noticeable impact. Knowing what was coming made these (slightly) smaller scale stories just not matter; knowing the final season of Arrow was directly integrated with the “impending crisis” only further overwhelmed any sense of purpose the stories of its shows held.

(and if we’re being honest, “Crisis on Infinite Earths” has kind of been teased since The Flash‘s pilot episode in 2014, though that’s splitting hairs a bit.)

Crisis on Infinite Earths

Perhaps it is all that hype that makes “Crisis on Infinite Earths (Part 1)” the weakest entry of the three to air this week (parts four and five air in mid-January) feel like such an underwhelming, rushed introduction to this universe-hopping story of Drama and Emotion. When an anti-matter wave begins wiping out parallel Earths (including Earth-66, letting them sneak in a quick Burt Ward cameo), “Crisis on Infinite Earths” begins pulling it its many iconic major characters – which, let’s admit, doesn’t quite have the same impact it did back in “Invasion” or “Crisis on Earth-X”.

It then spends an inordinate member of time trying to integrate Supergirl‘s supporting cast into the fray (albeit briefly); which, as fans of previous crossovers would probably agree, always ends up being the weakest part of any crossover. Lena, Querl, Alex, and Kelly feel like nothing but obligatory inclusions in the episode – whatever is going on with Supergirl and the DEO, “Crisis on Infinite Earths (Part 1)” struggles mightily to make it feel like anything meaningful.

In their defense, it’s hard to invest in whatever side stories Part 1 is trying to nod towards; it all pales in comparison to seeing Kara fawn over momma Lois and poppa Clark, which is a tall task to compete with. But the DEO’s characters are noticeable momentum killers, moments where “Crisis on Infinite Earths” fumbles at grounding its outlandish, epic story with the non-powered entities of its universe.

Crisis on Infinite Earths

Unfortunately, it gets worse before it gets better: once we get all the heroes arranged, we get a lame-ass fight scene where the heroes (Supergirl, The Flash, Green Arrow, Atom, White Canary, Superman, and Batwoman) battle against some terrible CGI demons. It is easily the low point of all three hours, a clumsily-executed scene that utterly fails in providing any sense of urgency to the larger story (The Monitor’s nemesis killing off entire planets and realities with a massive wave of anti-matter, in case you were wondering).

It’s strange, because the fight scene ostensibly serves as the kicking off point for the whole crossover: and boy, is it awkward when it tries to make the CGI ghost fight the moment Oliver sacrifices himself to save the universe (or does he?). It’s a halting way to end Part 1, after a herky-jerky hour with a few choice cameos (including Griffin Newman as a trivia host, and Wil Wheaton as a protestor) and a lot of sci-fi mumbo jumbo establishing the stakes of the anti-matter wave.

“Crisis on Infinite Earths (Part 2)” is really where the crossover comes to life; both as a contained story, and a cumulative celebration of the strange, long legacy of mixed DC media. Batwoman travels to a parallel Earth to visit a embittered Batman (played by longtime Batman voice actor Kevin Conroy), Sara Lance gives Jonah Hex his signature scar outside a Lazarus Pit, and there’s an extended cameo of Tom Welling and Erica Durance as the OG The CW Clark and Lois; though all of those things are exactly as ludicrous and self-indulgent as they sound, the more Part 2 – and as a byproduct, Part 3 – bounce around worlds to visit iconic characters (and performers) from its past, the more powerful it becomes as a true crossover event.

Crisis on Infinite Earths

And despite the abundance of casting announcements and on-set photos, “Crisis of Infinite Earths” is still able to deliver a number of surprising appearances: who could’ve predicted a scene where Netflix’s Lucifer Morningstar talks to NBC/The CW’s John Constantine, which occurs after Part 3 does a motherfucking Birds of Prey cameo with Ashley Scott (AND the voice of Dina Meyer as Oracle, to boot). It is a fan fiction wet dream come true, even FINALLY integrating Black Lightning‘s Jefferson Pierce into the multiverse, with a shockingly (sorry) strong introduction of The CW’s most underrated hero into the already-crowded mix.

The sheer audacity of “Crisis on Infinite Earths” is, frankly, incredible to watch: while it doesn’t always work, it makes both Parts 2 and 3 utterly fascinating to dissect. It is Justice League by way of Into the Spider-Verse and Avengers: Endgame, as clumsy and endearing as that sounds; at times, it utterly fails to make its universe-ending narrative hold any actual weight, but it is an emotional powerhouse of iconic, often underappreciated performances in DC’s television history (I swear to God, if they bring in Linda Hamilton for a Wonder Woman cameo, I’ll lose my shit).

If we’re being honest, it’s more interesting in its construction than it is in execution: after ingesting 200+ episodes of DC television over the years, I hold no expectations for “Crisis on Infinite Earths” to ever capture the immense dramatic potential of its narrative.

Crisis on Infinite Earths

That’s just not what DC television is good at (save for a couple seasons of Arrow, and most of Legends of Tomorrow): where these shows shine is their heartfelt depictions of human connection, of the beauty in finding shared purpose. At that, “Crisis on Infinite Earths” is a pretty resounding success; whether Batwoman and Supergirl’s young friendship, or Barry’s tunnel-visioned optimism, “Crisis on Infinite Earths” proves the DC universe still has engaging stories to tell with the biggest stars of the present – and with characters like Kate Kane, Jefferson Pierce, and Ryan Choi (introduced in Part 3, in what appears to possibly be establishing a new Atom), the future.

We’ll have to wait until January to see how the grand experiment to unite all the timelines works out – but in its holiday send off, “Crisis on Infinite Earths” is a pretty touching love letter to decades of superhero television, earning its entry into the annals of modern television’s most ambitious endeavors.

Other thoughts/observations:

In what appears to be his swan song (knowing that he is departing Legends of Tomorrow), Brandon Routh’s double-duty as Ray Palmer and Superman (reprising his role from Superman Returns) is wonderful.

Even Wentworth Miller makes an appearance, kind of: the alternate-reality Wave Rider the team of heroes, paragons, and ominous entities is guided by Leonard, an AI who ironically sounds exactly like Captain Cold.

We forever stan Sara Lance; to see her guide and organize the team in Part 1 and Part 2… well, it’s just beautiful to see.

Boy, it is strange how “Crisis” just kind of glosses over Batwoman killing the bitter, murderous version of Batman her and Supergirl visit in Part 2.

Easy litmus test to know whether you’re in or out on this whole endeavor; whether you jump for joy or scream in agony when hearing the word “infinitude” in the opening moments of Part 1.

There is a very, VERY brief shot of a few characters from DC Universe’s Titans, which I always forget exists. No Doom Patrol or Swamp Thing, unfortunately.

Unlike previous crossovers, only Supergirl‘s episode feels like it is still kind of trying to be an episode of its own series. I haven’t watched much Batwoman, but part 2 definitely does not attempt to make any play at drawing in a new audience with a unique display of personality (and in fact, I don’t think there’s a single other Batwoman regular in the episode).

Apparently the Brec Bassinger Stargirl character will make her debut in the final part of “Crisis on Infinite Earths”, even though her series is not airing until 2020… on DC Universe? Modern television is so fucking weird.

It is still hard to believe Jon Cryer as Lex Luthor.

There are hints of the theme from the 1989 Batman film in Blake Neely’s score, which is just fucking insane.

When Earth 90’s Barry Allen makes a major sacrifice, we are treated to a brief flashback to actual footage from the 1991 The Flash series. It is perhaps the most breathtaking surprise of the whole crossover.

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‘J.T.’ – A Tragic, Poetic and Improbably Beautiful Holiday Special that is a Must-See!

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J.T.-1969-Christmas-Special

Join us as we spend the next 25 days writing about some of our favourite Holiday TV specials! Today we look back at the unsung gem, J.T.

What’s it About?

Produced for a Saturday morning children’s anthology on CBS, J.T. premiered to such rave reviews, the network scheduled it again a week later in a prime time slot. The Christmas special follows J. T. Gamble (Kevin Hooks), a shy, withdrawn Harlem boy who befriends a sick, one-eyed, old and badly injured alley cat days before Christmas. Showing compassion and responsibility, J.T. secretly nurses the feline back to health.

J.T.-1969-Christmas-Special

Review

Those who have seen J.T. will never forget the emotional impact this heartfelt drama has. Nor will they have forgotten the heartbreaking moment in which the cat is hit by a car. Priceless because it catches the sights, sounds, and moods of a city that are of a bygone era, watching J.T. is like being present for the opening of a time capsule, giving us one a look back at pre-Giuliani NYC. Brilliantly written by Jane Wagner and based on her own book of the same name, J.T. will capture the hearts of many, as we witness the young boy create a wellspring of comfort for his newfound pet in an abandoned apartment complex.

Winner of a Peabody Award, J.T. is also a story of a single mother’s struggle to be independent and support both herself and her son, while refusing to allow the ghetto life to break the family’s optimism. Come the teary denouement, this story will warm the coldest of hearts and challenge even the most hard-hearted moviegoer. There is a wonderful surprise at the end when a local grocer and his wife offer the young boy a second chance. Kevin Hooks is amazing in the lead, as is Ja’Net Dubois who plays his overworked mother, who tries her best to supply for her family while slaving away and working a low-paying job. Sensitively directed and rarely over-sentimental, this touching parable will likely ravish the emotions of cat lovers everywhere.

J.T. 1969

How Christmassy is it?

There isn’t much Christmas cheer, Christmas music, holiday shopping, decorations and so on, but the special ends on an uplifting note – one that rings true with Christmas spirit. So I would say 50/50.

You May Like It If…

If you are nostalgic for the late 60’s New York City or are an animal lover.

Final Thoughts:

It stars actor Kevin Hooks as the young lead. Hooks currently works as a director for several hit TV shows including Lost, 24, Monk and Prison Break. The role of J.T.’s mother is played by actress Ja’net DuBois, who also appeared as the upstairs neighbour, Willona, on the groundbreaking 1970s sitcom Good Times.

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Before the Internet

Watchmen Podcast: Breaking Down “A God Walks into Abar”

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Watchmen Podcast A God Walks into Abar

“A God Walks into Abar” is the deeply heartfelt episode we’ve been waiting for!

The wonderfully pun-titled penultimate episode—directed by Nicole Kassell, written by Damon Lindelof and Jeff Jensen— is a powerful love story that spans many years, and told in a disjointed fashion to explain just how the most powerful man in the world wound up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, married to Angel Abar and with his memory wiped out. It’s an amazing hour of television—able to carefully turn a seemingly indecipherable character, into something beautifully textured, human, and meaningful— and we have plenty to say about it.

Our Watchmen podcast will see Simon Howell and an assortment of guests tackle the entire series (or at least the first season). In this eight episode,  Simon Howell , Randy Dankievitch and guest Sean Collettin take a deep dive into “A God Walks Into Abar” and note some of the more astonishing facts of the episode you might have missed.

And for those of you wondering, in order to keep things simple, we’ve decided to upload each episode to the same feed as our other podcast, Before the Internet.

Listen here on iTunes or listen here on Stitcher. 

You can also catch our show on Pocketcast and on Spotify, or simply listen via the player embedded below.

Before the Internet Watchmen Podcast Special
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